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Remembering Music on Iwo Jima

Among the death and the fighting and the chaos on Iwo Jima, one Marine made music. Pfc. Frank J. Matthews was among the Marines who made "uncommon valor a common virtue," and he made the time to make music on Iwo Jima. (U.S. Marine Corps historical photo)

Pfc. Frank J. Matthews sat resting on the ground with his returning patrol. His wrist was aching more than usual today, and he rubbed the dirty bandage that encircled it and held together his tattered flesh.

From somewhere among the numbers of resting Marines, he heard a voice calling, “Matthews … Frank Matthews … Has anyone seen Matthews?”

“He’s over here,” an anonymous voice directed.

Matthews looked up to see a familiar face approaching. It was the 4th Marine Division chaplain.

I’ve been looking all over for you Matthews,” the chaplain’s friendly voice boomed. “I want to have some services for the men tomorrow, and I need you to play the organ.”

In disbelief, Frank stammered, “You have an organ with you – here?”

“Well, yes,” the chaplain chuckled, “my little reed organ.”

Frank was familiar with the instrument. The small organ would be similar to the ones he played for his father’s revivals back home. A Presbyterian minister, Matthews’ father would hold revivals in small churches across the rural south, always dragging his young son with him to provide the music. His father would preach, and Matthews would do his best to get a decent volume of sound from whatever small packable organ or piano was available.

The chaplain grinned, telling him, “I only brought it with me because I knew you would be here to play it.”

“Well,” said Matthews, shaking his head in astonishment, “you were more optimistic than I was that I’d still be here.”

The chaplain told him, “I figured if anyone would make it, it would be you.”

Matthews’ mind flashed back over the last month.

His minister father would have called it nothing short of a miracle that he was standing here talking with the chaplain and not lying lifeless under the fields of white crosses nearby.

It was March 17, 1945, and 18-year-old Matthews had been in combat on Iwo Jima for almost a month now. He recalled the hectic days of the past month.

As a Marine of the 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, he had joined his platoon in a beach landing Feb. 19, 1945, D-Day, onto the tiny, volcanic island on which the Japanese were an entrenched enemy determined to fight to the last man.

Before the battle of Iwo Jima ended on March 26, 1945, the Marines suffered almost 26,000 casualties and 95 percent of the Japanese 21,000 defenders were killed. 22 Marines and five sailors received the Medal of Honor for their actions on Iwo Jima. (U.S. Marine Corps historical photo)

Matthews had charged up the shifting black sand beaches and steep cliffs into the face of the enemy. Beneath the surface of the island, the Japanese had carved miles of catacombs and subterranean rooms from which they would emerge, attack and then disappear underground into safety.

Matthews and his platoon fought their way into the heart of the island and struggled to hold the lines across eight square miles of rocky plateaus.

One day while on patrol, an enemy sniper picked off a flamethrower operator near Matthews. Almost before the cumbersome weapon hit the ground, the gunnery sergeant yelled for Matthews to put the flamethrower on. Being more scared of the gunny then he was of the Japanese, Matthews hurriedly strapped on the three tanks of fuel and compressed gas.

Day after day, he had to march up and down the island carrying the eighty pounds of tanks on his back. The deadly nozzle of the thrower spewed choking gas and flames. He had worked quickly from tunnel to tunnel chasing the enemy into the darkness, burning out their hideaways and then using the gruesome power of his weapon to suck out all the life-giving oxygen from their cave system.

He would clear a tunnel one day only to find it filled with the enemy again the very next day. Day after day, he cleared the labyrinths of underground tunnels.

At night, he sought solace in the foxhole he had dug out of the acrid volcanic ash and soil. He had found a few bloody and discarded gurneys that provided a makeshift roof from the frequent rains.

As he tramped up and down the island, he pushed out all thoughts of anything but his task. To dwell on the fact that a Marine with a flamethrower was an easy target for enemy snipers would have been pointless and distracting. Distraction could have meant death.

Each night, he was amazed that his slight, 150-pound frame made it back to that hole in the ground. He was wounded three times during those days.

Once, a large shard of metal had shot into his skull just above his left eye and just below where his helmet provided protection. Not wanting to be sent to the hospital ship, he talked a medic into pulling it out with a pair of pliers.

A photo of Frank J. Matthews from May 1945. He landed on Iwo Jima Feb. 19, 1945, and was there until March 19, 1945. He continued to compose and play music while serving in the Marines. After the war, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in 1949 he earned a degree in music. In 1950, he was back in the Marine Corps and served during the Korean conflict as an officer. At the age of nearly 86, he continues to give private music lessons two days a week and serve as a docent four days a week at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. (Photo courtesy of the Matthews family)

A few days later, an explosion knocked him to the ground, wrenching his back and bruising his spine. The men next to him weren’t so lucky.

Then, he had taken a Japanese grenade to the wrist. The ceramic shrapnel tore through his flesh and lodged deep into and around his tendons and veins.

By now, he was the last surviving member of his 40-man platoon.

Matthews’ mind snapped back to the chaplain standing before him and the chaplain’s unexpected request for an organist. All Matthews could think to ask was, “What do you want me to play?”

The chaplain told him, “Just pick two hymns; we’ll alternate Protestant and Catholic services so pick something they will all know, but nothing they have to sing.”

The chaplain’s face changed and his normally broad smile tightened down as he added, “They’ll be too tired to sing.” He took a breath and his face eased into its characteristic grin.

“And, of course, you’ll need to play the ‘National Anthem’,” the chaplain continued.

As he walked away, he turned and added in a cautionary tone, “But Matthews, play a version that has some life to it, so they can stand proud.

Matthews nodded in understand, “No problem, sir.”

That night, he got busy arranging in his mind a spirited version of the “National Anthem,” and he thought hard about what two hymns should be plated.

He decided on “Jesus, Joy of  Man’s Desire” as it would be easily recognized by Catholics and Protestants and didn’t require singing by the tired men. For the second hymn, he selected “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” The song’s fourth stanza seemed to speak to what he knew was on the minds of his fellow Marines – what was on his mind – all those who were no longer with them, all those white crosses.

When ends life’s transient dream,

When death’s cold, sullen stream shall o’er me roll;

Blest Savior, then in live, fear and distrust remove;

O bear me safe above, a ransomed, soul! 

Early that Sunday morning, Matthews unfolded the suitcase-sized organ as the first group of men gathered round. The fatigued men sat on crates, on boxes, on the ground. They listened to the chaplain, and they bowed their heads in prayer.

Matthews peddled hard on the organ and got as much volume as he could from the diminutive instrument.

A few of the men quietly sand along, but most sat silent and stone-faced, exhausted, simply drinking in every bit of comfort that the music could provide.

When Matthews played his arrangement of the “National Anthem,” everyone stood a bit taller, even as tears filled some of their eyes.

Groups of men kept coming all day long, 20 or 30 at a time, seeking a few moments of reflection and solace.

Matthews’ bandaged wrist throbbed as he pounded the keys of the organ. But, men kept coming to share in the reassurance of the service. Matthews counted 10 services, then 20, then he lost count. For as long as men kept coming, Matthews kept playing.

When the services were done for the day, he walked to the makeshift cemetery and wandered alone among the rows of white crosses. The remains of Matthews’ platoon lay under his feet and his arrangement of the “National Anthem” rang in his ears.

He left the war-ravaged island the next day.

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  • Richard Shafer

    I met this man Frank, at the museum in September of 2012. what an honor and a terrific man every one should hear his story and pass on to younger generations. He is the 2nd Iwo vet I met, the first being at the Camp Dodge Museum in Johnston Iowa, Bob Barrnett these guys are both a part of the greatest generation of WWII

  • tnbroker1

    “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

    In honor of my uncle GW Matheny, and great Uncle Barney Floyd, both in the USMC. Both also wounded at Iwo Jima.

    Wonder story. May we continue producing such men and women by the grace of God!!

  • Edward Mark Pogue

    What a great Honor to meet Mr Matthews yesterday, 9/28/12, at the United States Marine Corps Museum and hear his story about Iwo Jima. What a great place to hear it and also other stories from the Sons of Marines who were also there.
    Semper-Fi Mr Matthews.

  • Proud Daughter

    I understand, Mary. My father was a gyrene, Forward Observer on Okinawa. He’d radio positions for the Navy Ships to blast with their guns.  One time there was a large Japanese Gun that would fire a few rounds before they’d haul it back into a cave. Dad said it was really hard to find, but once found, Navy came thru and destroyed it.  He rarely spoke about what he experieced, but when he did, we kids took note and remembered.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wilfred.parmenter Wilfred Parmenter

    Platoon Sgt Milton Donald Chittenden survived Iwo as a mortar man. June 6 he will celebrate his 92 birthday. He still comes to the fire station to perform routine maintenance on the trucks. I look forward to the Marine Corp ball every year to see this brave man stand tall. He still has the walk although a bit bent over, still every bit the gyrene   of WW II . Never complains still proud as hell of our beloved Corps. SEMPER FI  my brother.

  • Jo in the UK

    Met Mr Matthews at the Museum on a visit from the UK with my Dad who thinks the Marine Corps rocks!!!  Fantastic experience at the Museum. So rare that you get to meet a living legend…..and a gentleman too.

  • Grace

    God bless your Father.  My dad was in the pacific as a Marine – Pearl Harborod survivor.  He only mentioned it once also- They were and still are the greatest generation.  God bless them all.  

  • Raijin2004

    They were allowed to do that back in the day.  Still got more moto in him then some devildogs today.

  • MaryD

    My father served on the USS New Hanover as a radarman.  The ship ferried troops to many of the island battles.  As the troops were mustered to go ashore on Okinawa, a young Marine began to show severe signs of battle fatigue.  Even so, he was being forced into a landing craft.  My Dad recognized that the young man would not survive the day if forced to go ashore.  My Dad took his place.  With a machine gun strapped to his belly, he survived the walk across the beach.  For several days, he fought along side the Marines until his ship was ordered away.  For weeks afterward, his letters home were  shaky and almost impossible to read.  Each one started with “This old tub is sure rocking tonight”.  From across the Pacific, he tried to assure my Mom it was not what he had seen and done that caused his hand to shake.  It was only years later he explained the real reason, and then only once.  Like many in his generation, he put the horror behind him and came home to us.

  • IowaMarine

    Only rear echelon Marines worry about haircuts.

  • Hawkeye

    “Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue”

    No other campaign was more hotly contested than Iwo, an otherwise worthless pile of volcanic rock and cinders. Both sides persevered under horrific conditions until the entire Japanese force was destroyed, but at horrific cost to the Corps.

  • karl

     humm that was a hair cut in world war II look at any pic of back then

  • Lee Hagan

    What an honor to know Marines such as this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=658458734 Thomas F Matas III

    wow, amazing story! thank you

  • Tx_Mairne

    Look at that haircut (or lack there of) something the higher-ups need to take note of. Nice lean of the cover by the way.